Governor General Michaelle Jean floats through the air as she takes part in a traditional Inuit blanket toss in Inuvik, N.W.T., Sunday, April 13, 2008.
INUVIK, NWT -- They warned the Governor General not to bend her knees or she might wind up with broken legs.
Then they repeatedly tossed Michaelle Jean around, at one point flinging her four metres into the air. The crowd cheered. She shrieked and struggled to catch her breath.
By the time it was over, locals shook their heads and declared with relative certainty that no Canadian vice-regal had ever starred in an Inuit blanket toss before.
Jean expressed fascination with the age-old hunting ritual she had just participated in Sunday, on the first day of her week-long Arctic tour.
"You feel totally vulnerable," she said later. "You're flying. And at the same time you have to be very, very solid on your legs. . . . It's a little bit stressful."
She balked at the first invitation to try it, and would clearly have been content to remain a spectator to a stunning spectacle.
A crowd of singers, dancers and drummers draped in brown parkas had just performed Inuvialuktun-language songs for her.
Then they cleared the tables in the town hall and pulled out a five-metre-wide canvas blanket to demonstrate the traditional hunting technique.
The age-old procedure was simple:
A bunch of strong people would surround the tarp, pull it up and hold it tightly. They would invite someone onto it - preferably someone with good enough eyesight to spot potential prey on the infinite Arctic horizon, and with flexible enough limbs to weather a bad crash.
Then they would start rocking - one, two, three, four, five times, until the momentum was so powerful that the sentry was sent surging skyward. The local elder who demonstrated the ritual for the Governor General was tossed about 10 metres in the air - high enough to knock aside a ceiling tile in an auditorium.
Once he was done with his demonstration, Abel Tingmiak invited the Governor General to give it a try.
At first, she politely declined. She kept watching Tingmiak perform, her mouth agape in awe.
Moments later, she was yanking off her boots, right down to her bare feet, and hopping onto the elevated blanket.
Tingmiak held her hands during the first two jumps. She fell backwards on one of them.
He issued a warning before one of the jumps.
"Don't bend your knees - whatever you do," he said. "We don't want to hurt you."
Finally, Tingmiak jumped off the canvas and left Jean to fend for herself. She made two jumps but stumbled on the descent both times.
On her second attempt she managed a more than two-metre bounce - which, from the starting point of the already elevated tarp, left her towering far about the crowd.
Later, as she finally sat back down in a chair to pull her boots back on, Jean was gasping for air.
The locals applauded her for being a good sport.
"I can say I tossed the Governor General around," said Vince Sharp.
He admitted being a little worried during one of Jean's stumbles. Blanket-tossing veterans here all have horror stories about leaps gone awry.
"If you bend your knees, you can get your legs broken. I've seen it happen," Sharp said.
After the event was over, Jean hung around chatting with locals until the community centre was empty.
With the partygoers all gone, she stepped out from the community hall into a 10:30 p.m. Arctic sunset.
The main focus of the Governor General's visit is education - and the need for young people to get one so they can benefit from the anticipated economic expansion of the Arctic.
There was a foretaste of the speech Jean will deliver Tuesday to an Inuit education summit.
During a visit Monday to an addiction treatment facility, Gwich'in Chief Richard Nerysoo said his people need to move forward from the pain of the past.
He said the abuses suffered in residential schools destroyed countless lives - but his community needs to move forward.
"If we dwell on (past abuses), they will kill us," Nerysoo said.
"We are bigger than that. We have to be bigger than that...".
"If we're too worried about our history, we're forgetting about our children."
The new $4 million community wellness centre - which the Gwich'in paid for themselves - was cited as an example of a community betterment.
The wooden building along the Mackenzie River is open to anyone with a substance abuse-problem, regardless of cultural background.
It is also used to help encourage a healthier lifestyle in young people, who are taught how to fish and hunt as area aboriginals have for centuries.
Jean drew parallels between the plight of aboriginals and the historical troubles of her native Haiti.
She told a group of aboriginal and community leaders about the pain caused by more than three centuries of slavery.
But she spoke about the need to move beyond the past.
Jean described how her grandmother, a widow, raised five children by herself.
She would put aside the money she made as a seamstress selling goods in the local market.
Her first priority was saving up for her children's schooling - and all five kids received a good education.
Jean said: "She would repeat it over and over - education is freedom".
And education should also be free, but that's just me.
Jean ended the day by handing out the prestigious Northern medal award created by her predecessor Adrienne Clarkson.
The award for outstanding achievement and promotion of Canada's North was handed to Nelly Cournoyea.
A ubiquitous figure in the Northwest Territories, she has been premier, a radio announcer, land-claims negotiator, is the current head of the locally run Inuvialuit corporation, has helped launch the Northern Games, and encouraged local art.
Several hundred people attended the event in a school gymnasium and applauded energetically when the popular local figure strode to the stage to claim her award.
Cournoyea literally savoured the moment, biting into her medal to the guffaws of the crowd.
But she took the personal achievement in stride - describing community involvement as normal.
"Every person has been born into this world to do something," she said.
"You can't say, 'I have this wonderful privilege of being born into this world a human being' - and then waste it."
Governor General Michaelle Jean floats through the air as she takes part in a traditional Inuit blanket toss with elder Abel Tingmiak in Inuvik, N.W.T., Sunday, April 13, 2008.